A Personal Mission of Agency

Each year-end I look back and reflect. I look at all areas of my life: family, professional, personal, spiritual, physical, financial.

Across all of the major areas of my life, this has been a pivotal year of conceptual progress for me. I developed great clarity on my personal mission. And three ideas that began to gel for me in 2017 continued to gather strength.

Thinking about 2018, it is fair to say that this mission and corresponding three ideas have revolutionized how I approach almost all of my interactions.

My mission: To spread personal and collective agency. This is true in my professional life (where I explore ways that people can develop their own sense of democratic power) but also across my personal life — where I see my role as creating the conditions in which others can see the power and ability they already have.

Three principles have increasingly governed how I think about this mission:

1. I increasingly see propagation as the key means by which personal agency spreads. This recognition must be passed on from person to person to person. Through direct contact. I am convinced that as an individual my highest and best use is in fostering this spread. More and more, I am trying to organize all of my work with attention to how it might later propagate – not just from me to someone else, but from them to yet another. This is a kind of intentional “viral” strategy.

2. I have come increasingly to place learning at the center of all of my interactions. This is the central consequence of the above point. All progress, whether personal or collective, starts with a mindset change. That means that my task is not just to convey “knowledge” but a way of thinking. Agency must be learned, it cannot be taught. I try to interact in ways that encourages others to discover for themselves.

3. More and more I try to act through attraction. If propagation is the means by which personal agency spreads, and if learning is fundamental to that, then the nature of my interactions changes. When interacting with people, my task is to invite and interest them.

The future may always bring more change and upheaval, for me and for others, so I hesitate to say this is all set in stone. But looking back it is remarkable to me how powerful these ideas have been in my inner life over the past twelve months. I am looking forward to seeing how they further take root in 2019.

Three Problems of Modern Life

Public life is beset by three problems. Each is an extreme expression of a fundamentally human trait, exacerbated and amplified by some aspect of modernity.

  1. Anonymous Atomization. It is a normal aspect of the human condition that we struggle to really take others into account as anything more than actors in our own dramas. Our modern society has amplified this to the extent that we have, each on an individual level, lost most of our sense of connection with others. We live in separate bubbles and the more our lives become driven by free choice, the less we see other people as “real.”
  2. The Promethean Impulse. We want definitive answers and certain results, and we have built system upon system to make us more efficient. We live in a world of interlocking institutional mechanisms. The desire for assurance is natural. The myth of Prometheus is about humans’ yearning for technical power. Today’s scale has made this the only sort of knowledge. This has squeezed out our fundamental human abilities to manipulate our environment through small-group, collective behavior. When faced with a problem, our first thought is to search for an institutional or organizational response. This creates a bias toward ever more mechanistic responses.
  3. Hyper-tribal-polarization. Humans naturally form groups and identify with them. Our most fundamental evolutionary piece of learning is that survival is collective and therefore our membership in a group is our one of our chief imperatives. This group identification is a double edged sword, and can create conflict between groups where they compete for some perceived or actual power or resource. Yet if survival is collective, then problems are best solved with others. In today’s environment, first two problems above have intertwined to create a hyperpolarized world of conflict in which our group identification is so strong, and our denial of out-group people’s humanity is also so strong — that we hate, and we even proclaim it as a mark of our allegiance. We hate to the extent that we cannot solve collective problems, we cannot interact individually with members of other groups, and indeed we ostracize those in our group who dare to behave moderately.

Are these the only three problems? No. But they are ones I have been thinking about the most over my career.

The good news is that the remedy in each case is within each individual person’s control. All by myself, without needing outside help, I can try to see other people as human beings, look to my immediate companions for problem-solving, and behave in more loving ways to my so-perceived enemies in other groups.

prometheus-1930-2017-ss-4.jpg
José Clemente Orozco, Prometheus, 1930, Fresco, Pomona College, Claremont, CA.

The Pioneers of Courage

Independence Day is my favorite holiday of the year. The day we declared ourselves a free people. Our efforts were imperfect then, our freedom parsimoniously shared, our efforts remained imperfect through the decades, and they are imperfect now. We have much progress to make. But I relish this day, as I meditate on the courage — born of frustration and injustice — that our forebears showed in collectively saying “enough.” It was treason. Its success was unlikely. I imagine some felt as if they were signing their own death warrants, should the effort have failed.

When I am alone and fearful, in the dark mornings, contemplating some challenge, some task, some call to action that I must answer yet before which I feel cowardly — I think about them, and other pioneers of courage. If they could act, under much harsher conditions than I will ever face, then so must I be able.

Photo by A. Jarrell

And this courage is and has been on display not just on national matters of consequence. My neighbors display it. I see it all around. People quietly, courageously solving the local problems we encounter every day. I believe we are living in times upon which we will look back and say, “there began the rebirth of communities.” And the rebirth will have emerged as a result of national dysfunction. Here, where we live together, we face challenges. No force from on high will intervene. The mechanisms have ground to a halt.

So here we are.

Our nation is not some institution, some complicated mechanism established and set in motion. It grew. It emerged from villages, towns, cities — communities. It remains a land of communities, knit together by a mixture of geography and of ideas.

I am not blind to injustice nor infamy. I am not blind, either, to the precarious place the globe has become. But I feel I cannot afford to be overcome by despair nor by rage.

Today, the anniversary of our declaration of independence, I will spend time with neighbors and with family. And I will reflect on how best to improve my immediate surroundings. From a thousand, nameless, similar small acts, this land of communities might start to heal itself.

That is what I am thinking about today.